There is a vast body of water surrounding the Philippines.
To its right on the map is the Philippine Sea, occupying an estimated surface area of five million square kilometers. It is so vast that it played part in the United States Army’s Pacific Strategy, when it went island hopping from Pearl Harbor to the Philippines and Okinawa, where it launched its final push to defeat the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II.
On the left is the West Philippine Sea (wps), or the South China Sea (SCS), depending on which country is talking.
There, spots of islands are being claimed by the Philippines, as well by its Southeast Asian neighbors and, of course, China which of late has planted its flag on the Paracel and Spratly islands.
The Paracel — Hoàng Sa in Vietnamese and Xisha in Chinese — once belonged to the Vietnamese but lost the islands to the Chinese in 1974.
The Chinese also occupy a large part of the Spratly islands.
These sea lanes are essential to China’s economic growth and security. In the last few decades, when the once sleeping dragon had awakened, it laid claims to a vast area of the WPS, including islands and reefs the Philippines had claimed ownership of.
China’s territorial advance in the scs — okay, WPS — started on 13 August 1990, when Premier Li Peng reaffirmed China’s claims over Xisha and Nansha (Spratly) islands.
It was the first openly laid claim by China on both islands. But it was timely.
China was a rising economic force in the region at that time. It was knocking at the doors of superpower states, just a year before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disintegrated on Christmas Day of 1991.
Just several months before the Soviet Republic’s collapse, the Philippines kicked out the American forces from its military bases in the country, on 16 September 1991, through a vote to abrogate the US bases treaty by the Senate.
The Chinese leaders knew it was their time to move. And they did.
Before its ascent, China had come from wars and revolutions. Its people have made tremendous sacrifices to make their country what it is now. Silent internal upheavals within the Communist Party of China led to its leaders practicing capitalism while they continued to preach socialism. It worked for the “tiger,” which is now an economic superpower.
Along the way, China started diplomatic relations with the US and the West, while its spats with former socialist allies like the Soviet Union, North Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and other socialist nations continued.
In 1979, it engaged Soviet-backed Vietnam in a military confrontation for its role in driving back the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
Deng Xiaoping’s mantra that “to be rich is glorious,” however, worked its magic on the Chinese people. It grew in strength, economically and militarily that there is no doubt China now controls the whole of Asia and beyond.
When Li Peng asserted China’s ownership of the Xisha and Nansha islands, the country had also started to normalize its relations with Vietnam, which it had engaged in modern military conflicts since 1974.
That was the last open military act by China. The Chengdu Summit in 1991 led to China’s return of several territories to Vietnam in 1992, but the Chinese took control of six reefs in the Spratly Islands. They have remained there since.
While China has the third most powerful army in the world next to the US and Russia, it has not used force against its neighbors, like the Philippines, with which it has a lingering territorial dispute.
But it takes a very strong position on matters where it clashes with other countries. It does so, because it is talking from a very strong position, like when it repudiated the Philippines’ victory over the WPS handed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.
China has also found a friendly ally in President Rodrigo Duterte this time. The Chief Executive’s relations with China has warmed as he vowed to take an independent foreign policy, away from the dictates of the US.
Last week, President Duterte did what other past leaders before him had veered away from, terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement that further isolated the US forces out of their former launch pads in going to war against other countries.
US President Donald Trump equated Mr. Duterte’s action to several million dollars in savings, but without expounding on the losses to be incurred by his country which is to be denied of the faster and more economical routes only the Philippines had afforded to give the US in the past.
It was just a brave face displayed by Trump. But clearly, the US has lost Asia long ago.